The Cold Truth
The blowout came a little more than a month ago, and it was about as decisive a win as one team can have over another. Seattle’s 38-7 beatdown of Minnesota in Week 13 is fresh enough that for this weekend’s playoff rematch, it feels like the Seahawks should be as decided a favorite as we see on wild-card weekend.
Digging into some of the numbers, though, that isn’t exactly true. Let’s start in Las Vegas, where the Vikings are only five-point underdogs. Sure, they’re playing at home, but that isn’t an overwhelming spread. A Minnesota win would be the biggest playoff upset in … two whole seasons. As someone who’s lost plenty of money to those guys on The Strip, I can attest to them being pretty smart, which means in some scenario grounded in reality, the Vikings can keep this game close. The question, then, is how.
Minnesota had the league’s fifth-best scoring defense this season (18.9 points per game) thanks in large part to a collection of budding or realized stars at every level of Mike Zimmer’s unit. When Russell Wilson ran roughshod over them in December, many of those stars were roaming the sideline in sweatpants. They were missing Harrison Smith, the blitzing, pick-sixing, do-it-all man at the back end of Minnesota’s defense, who has as diverse a skillset as any safety in football. Linebacker Anthony Barr, a similar type of renaissance defender at linebacker, was gone too. And nose tackle Linval Joseph, who might have been the Vikings’ best defender this season, was out with a hip injury.
Having Smith against a newly terrifying Seahawks passing game will help, and the Vikings will begin their stand against Russell Wilson with Joseph and Barr healthy too. The only time Wilson has looked mortal in the past six weeks was in a surprising Week 15 loss to the Rams. St. Louis took the approach that typically works best when dealing with a quarterback throwing actual fire—they put out the flames by stomping them into the dirt. Wilson was sacked “only” four times, but total hits equaled a baker’s dozen. In short, the Rams terrorized him.
As the season went along, Seattle’s offensive line improved on its frightful start, but that improvement was relative. It meant going from 31st in pressure rate from Weeks 1 through 8 to 26th from Weeks 9 through 17. The Seahawks’ offensive line is still the area that can short-circuit the team, and in Minnesota they’re getting one of the best pass-rush units in football. The Vikings finished the season with the fourth-highest pressure rate in the league, but what might be most concerning is that Minnesota is at its best when bringing extra guys. Mike Zimmer actually blitzes at a below-average rate, but when he does, it works. No team got pressure more often on blitzes this season than Minnesota, at 49.4 percent.
That’s where the returning Barr and Joseph will factor. Defensive end Everson Griffen has had a fine season, Minnesota is at its most dangerous when it’s getting pressure on the interior with Joseph, Tom Johnson and Shariff Floyd doing damage while Barr simultaneously tears past the center on the blitz. The interior of Seattle’s line happens to be its most glaring deficiency. All that combines to create the one area where Minnesota has a decided advantage. It may be the only one, but it could also be a significant one.
Finding reasons for hope on the other side of the ball isn’t as easy. The Seahawks have one of the best defenses in football—again—and are equally impressive against the run and the pass. Teddy Bridgewater and the passing game are going to have a tough road, and relying on Adrian Peterson being superhuman might not be enough. So instead of searching for rays of light, maybe it’s better to step further into the dark.
At kickoff in Minneapolis on Sunday, the temperature is supposed to be hovering around 0 degrees. The Vikings are offering both free Caribou coffee and hand warmers to fans while encouraging them to bring blankets. On top of this sounding miserable for everyone involved, Brian Nemhauser of Hawk Blogger also found that, not surprisingly, for games that happen in near-subzero temperature offense falters and the ball ends up with the other team considerably more often than it does in warm weather.
For Minnesota, that has to be considered a plus. The lesser team typically makes out better when a game is mucked up, especially if that team is dependent on running and defense, as the Vikings are. It may not seem like much, but if the Vikings can make Russell Wilson feel the cold and use that defense and the elements to pry away a few extra possessions, they could steal a game not many expect them to win.
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The Surprise Six
Every NFL season is a lifetime packed into five short months. A team’s plans in July rarely line up with reality in January. To somehow put together a playoff run, teams are forced to rely on players either they or fans never expected. With that in mind, we came up with the six unexpected and/or underrated players who have come up big for their playoff teams.
Joe Berger, C, Vikings
Since taking over for Matt Birk in 2009, Vikings center John Sullivan has developed into a sixth-round steal, and one of the more reliable players in the league at his position for years. When Minnesota lost Sullivan for the season after back surgery in early September, there were some (this guy) who thought it might short-circuit the Vikings’ run game, and by extension, their entire offense.
Sixteen games later, Adrian Peterson is the NFL rushing champion, and Minnesota was among the most effective running teams in football. Joe Berger had a lot to do with it. He’s a 33-year-old journeyman with five NFL stops for four different teams (he served two nonconsecutive terms with the Dolphins) who spot-started during his first few seasons in Minnesota. This year he was asked to helm an offensive live that desperately needed the most out of the league’s best running back. Berger responded by playing exceptionally well in the running game all season.
Derrick Johnson, ILB, Chiefs
Calling a three-time Pro Bowler an “unexpected” contributor seems disingenuous, but it would have been easy to write off Johnson coming into the year. He was 32 when this season began, and few injuries are more frightening for an aging player than the torn Achilles that Johnson suffered in Week 1 of last season.
All Johnson did was storm back and have one of the best seasons of his career. Without him last season, the Chiefs’ defense finished 26th in Football Outsiders’ rushing DVOA. With Johnson back this year, Kansas City jumped to 11th. That rise is about more than Johnson, but outside of its star linebacker, most of the personnel in Kansas City’s front seven have remained constant. Add that to Johnson’s startling work in coverage, and you have one of the best inside linebackers in the league, a year after a devastating injury threatened to derail his career.
Doug Baldwin, WR, Seahawks
I’m going to watch what I say here—lest he hear me—but what Doug Baldwin did over the last six games of the Seahawks’ season was so far beyond his previous production that it seems impossible. Over the same stretch in which Russell Wilson ceased to be mortal, Baldwin had 34 catches for 530 yards and 11 touchdowns. Extrapolated to an entire season, that’s a 91/1,413/29(!) line. Obviously, the touchdown rate was beyond any reasonable expectation, but the late-season run was a glimpse of what Baldwin can be in an offense that wants to spread out and sling the ball around. Even with Wilson fully locked in, someone had to be on the other end, and that someone was Doug Baldwin.
Mike Daniels, DL, Packers
When Mike Daniels got his four-year, $42 million contract from Green Bay last month, there were probably football watchers across the country who responded with, “Who?” J.J. Watt had 17.5 sacks in 2015. Daniels has 18 for his career. And right now, Watt and Calais Campbell are the only 3-4 defensive ends in the league with a higher annual salary than Mike Daniels.
Daniels differs from Watt because Daniels spends a majority of his time inside as a defensive tackle, and from there he still does plenty of damage. He was comfortably Green Bay’s best defender this season, pushing the pocket on passing downs and steadily acting as the Packers’ best threat against the run.
Alejandro Villanueva, LT, Steelers
Villanueva took one of the most improbable roads to becoming an NFL starter that you’ll ever see. After three tours as a platoon leader in Afghanistan, the Army grad attended a regional combine in Savannah, Ga., in spring 2014 and eventually signed with the Eagles. Villanueva spent much of last season on the Steelers’ practice squad, but by the start of this regular season, he was penciled in as Pittsburgh’s backup left tackle.
When reliable left tackle Kelvin Beachum tore his ACL in October, Villanueva finally had his chance. The most impressive part about his play is that we haven’t heard much about it. He’s had rough days—against the Raiders and Broncos, mostly—but overall, Villanueva’s play has been such that the Steelers’ passing game has been able to sustain itself even while losing its No. 1 left tackle.
Carlos Dunlap, DE, Bengals
The former second-round pick (and first-round talent) has been a steady contributor since landing in Cincinnati in 2010, but this season has been a different story. Dunlap ended the year with a career-high 13.5 sacks, and his work in that area is one of the central ways this Bengals defense is different from the one that looked toothless against the Colts in last year’s playoffs.
In 2014 the Bengals finished dead last in pressure rate at 20.4 percent. This year they jumped all the way to ninth. The return of a healthy Geno Atkins helped—Atkins’ twist stunts created opportunities for Dunlap, and he capitalized to have the best season of his career.
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Ten Things I’m Watching This Weekend
1. How far the Packers offense has fallen. A year ago Green Bay came into the playoffs with the hottest offense in football. Aaron Rodgers was just finishing his second MVP campaign, and the most dangerous unit around appeared to be the one with him, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. This year the only ones who recoil at the thought of Green Bay’s offense are the Packers fans who have to watch it.
Green Bay’s offensive decline started when Nelson tore his ACL in the preseason. Long one of the more underrated players in the league, Nelson is a top-five talent at his position, and losing him was always going to be problematic.
That Davante Adams took a significant step back as the top outside option replacing Nelson didn’t help. Only 11 receivers in the league had a higher drop rate than Adams, and combined with his inability to create separation against man coverage, it was enough to make him one of the NFL’s least effective receivers in 2015.
The Packers’ inability to get open has hurt the offense, but what’s happened along the offensive line is truly what sent a formerly terrifying unit into a death spiral. Last season the Packers’ five starting linemen missed a total of zero starts. That’s next to impossible in today’s NFL. This year that group has been a constantly rotating carousel that never found its footing. Against the Cardinals, there was a point at which left guard Josh Sitton—the mainstay of Green Bay’s line for years—was the only starter left standing, and the result was Aaron Rodgers receiving a pummeling that lasted four quarters.
Combining a group of receivers who can’t get open with a patchwork offensive line is a recipe for disaster. And right now even a player of Aaron Rodgers’ caliber can’t overcome everything wrong with Green Bay. The Packers have lost all rhythm, all semblance of comfort in who they want to be on that side of the ball. And even against a Washington secondary that has its own problems, it’s still difficult to imagine Rodgers and that group having much success.
2. Who looks the warmest in Minnesota on Sunday. This may have no bearing on the outcome of the actual game, but I’m constantly fascinated by who’s wearing the least clothing in temperatures that weren’t meant to support human life. Colin Kaepernick in Green Bay a few years ago comes to mind. Either way, I’ll be in Los Angeles, still probably under a blanket and wearing a hoodie.
3. The Revenant. While we’re on the topic of feeling cold, might as well talk about Leo DiCaprio and his beard icicles in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s follow-up to Birdman. The stories about filming The Revenant are beyond apocryphal by now, but it’s not like I needed any more motivation to see DiCaprio trudging through an icy hell in pursuit of Tom Hardy and his first Oscar, all taken in by Iñárritu’s camera, which goes places few other directors in Hollywood dare. This may be a case where both Iñárritu and his lead actor are swinging a little too hard, but even that’s worth watching.
4. How many points it takes to win the Chiefs-Texans game. Arguably the league’s two hottest defenses hit the field in Houston this weekend, and somehow the 40-point over-under Vegas has right now feels too low. The Texans will be without left tackle Duane Brown, which means that devastating Chiefs pass rush may be even more dominant than usual. On the other side, J.J. Watt is alive, and few things are more terrifying than playoff Watt. “I think for a while there, people started to forget,” Watt told ESPN.com’s Tania Ganguli after the destruction he caused last week (three sacks, four QB hits, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, two passes batted down). “So today was a reminder of what it is like when I have both hands.” He really said that. This is going to be fun.
5. Marshawn Lynch. Beast Mode was born during wild-card weekend, and getting Lynch back in our lives in time for the playoffs is a beautiful thing. I think I can safely speak for Seahawks fans when I say a Super Bowl wouldn’t feel the same without him.
6. Whether the Steelers can run the ball. When I was in Pittsburgh last month researching a story on deep passing around the league, I had a conversation with Steelers guard David DeCastro. We were talking about the way Pittsburgh attacks opposing defenses depending on what’s being made available, and he mentioned that in their loss to Cincinnati earlier this season, they struggled to run the ball as the Bengals dared them to with two high safeties.
With Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams on the shelf, that means that Cincinnati is likely even more bent on forcing the Steelers running game and Fitzgerald Toussaint to beat them. Teams will be doing whatever they can in these playoffs to take away Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger and that passing game, and if Pittsburgh can’t make opponents pay, the Steelers won’t be around for long.
7. How the Bengals choose to attack Pittsburgh’s defense. It looks like the world is in store for another week of AJ McCarron, and we’ll see what that means in the playoffs. New Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler has carried over many of the same values that defined Pittsburgh’s defense for Dick Lebeau’s entire tenure—a lot of nebulous coverages and odd blitz packages that could prove problematic for a young quarterback without many game-speed reps, especially at a playoff level. It wouldn’t be at all surprising to see the Bengals try to run the ball as a way to protect McCarron, but they’ll be doing it into the teeth of the league’s fifth-best run defense, according to DVOA.
8. Kirk Cousins. Whether Cousins can continue his late-season romp into the playoffs will be among the more fascinating topics of the month, especially if Washington can manage to sneak by the Packers. On top of giving us what guarantees to be an all-time great sports radio drop, the second half of Cousins’ season also made him plenty of cash. As my friend Bill Barnwell of ESPN.com notes, since the “You like that?!” game, Cousins is completing 72.4 percent of his passes and has thrown 23 touchdowns and just three interceptions. His bank account likes that. Speaking of Barnwell, I encourage everyone to read the essay he published earlier this week about losing 125 pounds this year. On top of it being a beautiful piece of writing, it’s also an unflinching look at how difficult it can be for us to choose the path that’s best for us.
9. What Andy Reid has in store for the Chiefs. For a second, let’s move past the clock management issue and the gaffes that appear to make no sense and take a look at Andy Reid’s body of work as a head coach. Reid has 161 career wins, good for 15th all time, ahead of Bud Grant, Joe Gibbs and Marv Levy. His career .594 win percentage is better than that of Bill Parcells, Hank Stram and Chuck Noll.
It’s not totally fair to attribute a team’s wins or losses to the work of one coach, but Reid’s work on his specialty side of the ball is just as impressive. Even with Jeremy Maclin now in tow, the Chiefs are still a team with limited receiving talent, an offensive line of relative disappointments or players off the street, and a quarterback who has long been the universal symbol of mediocrity. Under Reid they’ve turned into a unit that’s more than capable of winning the Super Bowl. Jenny Vrentas wrote an excellent story earlier this week about the relationship between Reid and Alex Smith and how it’s allowed the Chiefs offense to become what it has. Yet again, Reid has been an offensive architect who gets the most out of the talent afforded him.
10. Minnesota’s offensive line and whether it can hold up against Seattle’s front four. The Vikings are going to do everything they can to establish Adrian Peterson and the running game, but at some point Teddy Bridgewater is going to need to hit a scattered big throw to sustain a drive here and there. All season, this has been one of the league’s leakiest groups in pass protection, and now the Vikings face a defense that finished second in the league in pressure rate (32.7 percent of snaps) while blitzing at a lower rate than 25 other teams. Good luck, I guess.
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